Mister Rogers: A Neighbor before Neighboring Was Cool
“Won’t you be my neighbor?” For multiple generations of Americans these words instantly call to mind a familiar melody and images of a warm smile, cardigans, blue shoes, and trolleys. I’m no different, by the time I went to kindergarten in the fall of 1989 I’m sure I had heard Mister Rogers’ (at 1962 alumnus of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) sing this song hundreds of times. I loved so much about the program—the Land of Make Believe, the songs, the days we accompanied Mr. Rogers out the back door to join him at the sandbox. Through it all Mister Rogers’ calm, steady presence exuded sensitivity to the anxieties, joys, and curiosities that mark early childhood. It was the kind of thing that made kids like me love accompanying the grandfatherly Mister Rogers though both mundane things like changing his shoes to his trips out into his neighborhood.
Truth be told, as much as I liked the Land of Make Believe and the backyard sandbox, my favorite part of the show was getting to accompany Mister Rogers out into the neighborhood. In the neighborhood we met all kinds of people, from a friendly mailman and a dancer to folks who made things like crayons. (The orange crayon episode was my favorite. There were SO MANY orange crayons in that Crayola factory!) In my corner of rural western Pennsylvania I did not know anyone who worked in a crayon factory. I had no idea how the crayons I used everyday were made. I was so glad Mister Rogers did and was willing to take me along!
Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others.
Mister Rogers in the Neighborhood
Looking back I can see that one of the things Mister Rogers did for me—completely without my knowing it—was to illustrate through this trips into the neighborhood how connected all of us were to others. Sure, I might be watching from the comfort of my living room, but just as the camera panned out to show Mister Rogers’ house, not as an island but as a part of a much larger community, so too my life and my little house was part of a much bigger community, a community in which many different kinds of people contributed in a variety of interconnected ways. By taking me with him into his neighborhood Mister Rogers taught me in his gentle way how to better see my neighborhood, my mailman, the people who made things (though not crayons, alas!) close to my house.
Who is My Neighbor
In today’s world neighboring has become a topic that is variously hipper-than-hip in some communities and politically suspect in others. We have books like The Art of Neighboring and “sanctuary cities” at the same time as others build literal and figurative walls. In this milieu the scribe’s question to Jesus “Who is my neighbor?” sounds almost contemporary. It is basically a question “Who counts?”
In the simple goodness that children instantly understand Mister Rogers never had that question. He seemed to intuitively know the answer. As I and generations of children with me accompanied Mister Rogers through his day and into his community we learned that the people we met were all neighbors each with unique contributions to make to our community and each worthy of our kindness. It is a lesson that rings with the Gospel. It is a lesson I hope I never forget.
The Rev. Dr. Charlie Cotherman ’12 serves as pastor of the church plant Oil City Vineyard in Oil City, Pa., and also as an adjunct faculty member at Pittsburgh Seminary. While a student at PTS, Charlie received The Fred McFeely Rogers Prize in Biblical Studies.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Pittsburgh Seminary invites you to help fund the Fred Rogers Family Room in our newly renovated, soon-to-reopen Barbour Library! With its Neighborhood-like feel, furnishings, and outfitting, the Fred Rogers Family Room will welcome families to explore reading and play that inspire loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, and seeing every person as a child of God. Make your donation toward our $25,000 goal today!